Although Ron Popeil has appeared in dozens of movies and is as recognizable a presence on television as Oprah Winfrey, rarely is the master inventor and pitchman placed in the...

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LAS VEGAS — Although Ron Popeil has appeared in dozens of movies and is as recognizable a presence on television as Oprah Winfrey, rarely is the master inventor and pitchman placed in the same celebrity orbit as Clint Eastwood or even Pamela Anderson.

Yet there he was at the annual Global Gaming Expo (G2E), staged earlier this fall at the Las Vegas Convention Center, pushing the buttons on a slot machine inspired by one of his most noteworthy contributions to American pop culture: the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ Oven. Eastwood and Anderson attended as well, promoting slot machines of their own.

Although Popeil’s presence may not have sparked the same hysteria as the A-list celebrities, International Game Technology’s preview version of “Ron Popeil’s But Wait, Win More!” game, with its rotating-chicken bonus feature, easily stole the show. (The machines will make their debut in casinos sometime next year.)

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Casino celebrities


Among other iconic figures represented on the firm’s long roster of slot machines are Dick Clark, Mickey Mantle, Elizabeth Taylor, Laverne and Shirley, Gilligan ( Bob Denver), Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Rodney Dangerfield, Frank Sinatra and the Munsters. The logos of brands like “Star Wars,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Dragnet,” “The Price is Right,” “M*A*S*H,” “Jeopardy!” and “American Bandstand” also blared from kiosks.

Celebrity worship has reached epidemic proportions, not only on Madison Avenue but along Las Vegas Boulevard South. Bravo, NBC, ESPN and the Travel Channel air shows exploiting the gambling skills — or lack, thereof — of such amateur poker players as Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Kevin Pollak and Dave Foley. Meanwhile, professional champs have recently begun getting endorsement deals, magazine spreads and instructional-DVD deals.

Large Strip casinos, which cater to the broadest spectrum of tourist, convention and gambling business, tend to maintain a balance between those traditional three-reel slots familiar to longtime players, and the more technically advanced multi-reel games popular with newer players. For his part, Popeil says, “I’m having a lot of fun, and the people here seem to be enjoying themselves.”

Popeil’s Showtime Rotisserie is nearing $2 billion in total sales. “It tells you something about the power of television.” Popeil is quick to point out that the estimated royalties from his machines here — between $300,000 and $400,000 — will go directly to a charity, the Lucky Brand Foundation (“I don’t make a dime off it.”).

What the “salesman of the century” leaves unstated, however, is that each slot machine will provide new opportunities to promote his already wildly successful Showtime Rotisserie products. If the new game is successful, other Popeil and Ronco products likely will get slots of their own.


Eastwood, Anderson promote games


Nearby, Eastwood was promoting WMS Gaming’s “A Fistful of Dollar$” slot series. His outlaw visage, circa 1964, stood out among new incarnations of the company’s “Monopoly,” “Hollywood Squares,” “Men in Black,” “Supermarket Sweep,” “Don Ho’s Kahuna Kash,” “Password,” “Pac Man” and “Match Game.”

Anderson appeared next door, at Bally’s, alongside a prototype of Bally’s new “Playboy Get Lucky Wheel,” and soccer legend Pelé was on hand to shill for Aristocrat’s “Pelé’s Legendary Goals.” Bally’s line-up of licensed slots included “Saturday Night Live,” “Betty Boop,” “Hee Haw,” “Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends,” “Chippendales,” “Atari Pong,” “Popeye,” “Felix the Cat,” “Blondie & Dagwood” and “S&H Greenstamps.”

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner describes the Bally’s slots as “a natural extension of the Playboy brand.” The magazine has always been “gadget-oriented,” he said. “We were the first magazine to get into television, put up a Web site and put our brand on a pinball machine. … It went along with our interest in the James Bond novels and movies.”

Hefner said he signs off on all the visuals used on the machines, including magazine covers, models and other images. “I’m very enthusiastic about the slot machines,” he said.

Although celebrities have been endorsing products for as long as there have been celebrities, the lucrative branding and licensing deals are recent additions to the arsenals of slot machine manufacturers.

The concept was introduced less than a decade ago, when modern computer-chip technology was added to traditional mechanical-reel platforms to create the possibility of bonus rounds, apart from the usual jackpots. It was the same technology used in computer games, and it guaranteed faster play.


New generation rises


The first of the new generation of games to arrive in Las Vegas-style casinos were “Wheel of Fortune,” “Elvis” and “Jeopardy!” with “Monopoly” coming along a bit later. Suddenly, one-arm bandits were given the ammunition — in the form of interactive bonus rounds — to compete with the ever-more-popular video poker for the eyes, ears and quarters of patrons familiar with TV game shows.

Seemingly overnight, casinos actually began sounding different. Instead of clanging bells, mechanical clicks and clacks, and jackpot alarms, the soundtrack was more of an electronic gurgle and hum, with bursts of “This is Jeopardy!,” “Wheel! of! Fortune!” and snippets of rock songs.

A generation of Americans raised in front of their television sets ate it up. To combat against mass outbreaks of over-familiarization, however, manufacturers soon realized they would have to keep coming up with elaborate new ways to keep the excitement level up.

Ever more powerful chip technology freed designers to upgrade basic platforms almost at will, and simultaneously ratchet up a game’s entertainment value. Gamblers were given the illusion, at least, of being able to determine the outcome of fanciful new games.


Hollywood jumps on bandwagon


As the television- and cartoon-based games gained acceptance, Hollywood studios started re-thinking their policy of remaining at arm’s length from the casino industry. The floodgates finally burst at last year’s G2E, drenching even the phenomenon that was tournament poker.

(In Washington, Indian casinos are limited to Class II and III machines, whose payouts are determined at a central location, like the Lottery and bingo. Most branded slot machines can be adjusted to conform to state law.)

Games endorsed by Taylor, Carey, Foxworthy and Dangerfield joined those previously approved by the estates of Sinatra, Monroe, Mantle and the Three Stooges. Movie studios gave their blessing to slots based on “Men in Black,” “Star Wars,” “Terminator,” “Chicago,” “Wayne’s World,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Animal House,” “Austin Powers” and “Young Frankenstein.”

Additionally, there were machines themed to such classic TV shows as “Saturday Night Live,” “M*A*S*H,” “That Girl,” “I Spy,” “Twilight Zone,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Honeymooners,” “Bewitched” and “The Newlywed Game.”

Instead of selling slot machines outright to casinos, manufacturers now are able to lease games with deals that require specific daily payments, whether anyone plays the games or not. The parties carrying the least amount of risk are the celebrities, rights holders and the estates of dead celebrities.

For people like Merv Griffin, whose brainstorm it was to create “Wheel of Fortune,” it’s found money. Same thing with the media companies holding the rights to popular comic strips and printed games like “Jumble.”

It helps that no one seems particularly concerned anymore with the negative connotations of gambling.

After all, if early manifestations of “Elvis,” “Monopoly” and “Jeopardy!” hadn’t proved lucrative for everyone involved — and popular with consumers — no one in the entertainment industry would have ventured near the slot-machine business.

(Nevada state law forbids the use of characters that might be of particular interest to kids and teenagers, and has vetoed, for example, a licensing deal for a “Beavis and Butt-Head” game.)


One-armed irony


Meanwhile, the presence of a star of Eastwood’s stature signified something far more significant than the arrival of a cool new game. It effectively put the stamp of approval on an industry some in Washington, D.C., would love to legislate out of existence.

His name and immense popularity carries considerable cachet among manufacturers, casino executives and marketing executives. If “A Fistful of Dollar$” is good enough for Eastwood, who’s going to try to dissuade other heavyweight entertainers from pocketing the found money?

Eastwood didn’t personally design the machine, of course. He was, however, given some say in how his popular character was represented, as did the Italian distributor Unidis and Warner Bros.

“I was consulted, and saw the images that were used,” Eastwood said.

The choice of Popeil as a celebrity endorser wasn’t so obvious, although in hindsight it may prove to be a no-brainer. Two years ago, IGT launched a game based on the lunch meat Spam, and thus, it knew a thing or two about that rare capitalist commodity: irony.

“When Ron originally approached us, what was interesting to me was that all royalties would be donated to his Lucky Brand Foundation children’s charities,” said Joe Kaminkow of IGT. “I was familiar with Ron, and I must admit I love the chicken roaster we have at home. I love fun, kitschy, crazy, challenging ideas — and we had great success with Spam.

“It was a little bit of a push to stretch the normal boundaries,” he said, “but by now, most employees are used to my wacky ideas.” If the game proves to be a huge success, could slots based on the Veg-O-Matic be far behind?

Gary Dretzka: gdretzka@aol.com